Pope Francis greets Archbishop John Wester of Santa Fe, New Mexico, during an audience with U.S. bishops making their “ad limina” visits to the Vatican on February 10, 2020, to report on the state of their dioceses . (CNS/Vatican Media)
It’s all very ironic.
It is very difficult to talk about peace in the United States without starting a fight. There’s at least one in every crowd who salutes the strongman’s need for peacekeepers who are willing to fight to keep it.
These guys were there in the beginning. They were the ones who were in favor of suppressing Native Americans by moving them out of their own land now that we were here and declared this land ours. Then, surprisingly, they called themselves “peacekeepers” when the indigenous people fought back.
And they were still there 350 years later when we dropped two planet-splitting bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – despite the fact that the end of the war was already in sight – to see which bomb could do the most damage. In case we ever need to use it again… to keep the peace, of course.
It all boils down to a worldview that teaches “take what you want and threaten what you owe” to “keep the peace”. Then everyone will be happy — as the bliss says.
To the right.
Unless, of course, being peaceful isn’t about crushing disagreements and annihilating anyone who stands in our way. Unless it’s about not fighting, or destroying life and traditions and whole swaths of people who are just different from us.
The problem is that Jesus who died on a cross and didn’t fight to take it down leaves us looking for ways to keep peace without suppressing and destroying the rest of society to get it.
That said, the church has never been so good at teaching this bliss. In fact, the church has a history of achieving “peace” itself through slaughter, suppression and slavery and all sorts of other things that we refuse to remember as an institution. Like the Crusades. And the Jewish Inquisition. And the persecution of Christians who have committed themselves to a different version of Christianity. And, oh yes, like the battles fought to decide which candidate would become pope in the Middle Ages.
So here we are, never truly forgiven of our peacemaking obligations, but never truly wholeheartedly committed either. Instead, the compelling reasons not to have been quietly inculcated over the centuries. As the weapons got bigger and the arsenal got deadlier, we all managed to practice more consternation than moral determination. “Yes, but,” we lament, “what can a person do?” Or, “after all, we have to defend ourselves.” Or, “they started it.”
The counter-arguments are all true, yes, but unfounded.
Yes, we have the right to defend ourselves, but certainly not with machines capable of killing every child in its path for 20 miles around.
And yes, they started it, but didn’t we really fuel it with our own taxpayers’ money for over 75 years while those same kids grew up without three meals a day, or had no afford a college education, or didn’t you have medical insurance, or did you live in unheated rooms with no elevator in a lucrative slum landlord’s hole?
Isn’t that also violence? Don’t we have to fix this?
Shouldn’t we ask ourselves how come we continue to arm ourselves to bring death to invisible enemies while our society is dying by other means at our own hands?
And now our so-called Representatives and Senators are telling us that these social things are too expensive for them when they have been inflating the military budget over and over again for all the years of our lives?
Yet, as dark as Catholic/Christian history is, we may be living at a time when the Catholic world is beginning to teach the difference between fighting and solving human problems through less barbaric means.
What is happening?
First and foremost, for example, the Archbishop of Santa Fe, John Wester – the diocese that is at the center of nuclear development – wrote a pastoral letter “Living in the light of the peace of Christ”. Above all, it is a letter that does not call for deterrence, as has become common. Instead, it calls us to work for the abolition of all nuclear weapons.
Archbishop John Wester of Santa Fe, New Mexico delivers the homily during Mass in the crypt of St. Peter’s Basilica Feb. 10, 2020, while he and other U.S. bishops in the Southwest region made their “ad limina” visits to the Vatican. (SNC Photo/Paul Haring)
This letter is strong and holy: it calls for a diocesan re-engagement on nuclear issues in a very concrete way.
First, he calls on parishes to hold public conversations to determine the real public steps that can be taken to reopen the nuclear conversation across the country.
Wester calls on us to push for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. It has been ratified by 86 countries so far, but none of the nine nuclear powers – the US, China, Russia, France, UK, India, Pakistan, Israel or North Korea – didn’t sign it.
Obviously, we have work to do.
It reminds us to realize that we are well beyond “nuclear deterrence” with a few hundred nuclear weapons. In fact, we now have over thousands of them. Thousands of nuclear weapons. Justify yourself how?
It reminds us that, ironically, we are destroying ourselves and our country in the name of defence.
The Archbishop’s letter is a humane, holy and understandable approach to a subject that has often sparked passions so deep that they were in fact ineffectual everywhere.
At the same time, this letter, I admit, strikes me in a very tender way. Like Wester, I also went to Hiroshima. I also visited the museum. I saw the clothes that had been beamed into pieces of brick wall as the person wearing them literally vanished into the ether. Then I followed the two-part diorama which shows on one side a model of the bustling and developed city of Hiroshima until – on the other side of the partition – there is only one tottering tower and a piece of brick here and there. I looked at him and blinked. Within seconds Model A had become Model B. And behind it, in simple frames hanging on the wall, were two letters from President Harry Truman ordering the US Air Force to completely refrain from bombing five Japanese cities – Kyoto, Yokohama, Kokura, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki — so we can find out which of the two new bombs would do the most damage.
I am an American! Standing in that crowd at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, embarrassment consumed me. I could feel the tears streaming down my face before I could try to dry my eyes. I turned my back to the crowd pushing behind me to continue the tour.
And then, out of nowhere, I felt someone put their arms around my waist and softly say in my ear, “I’m so sorry. We also cry, sometimes, but we don’t want you to cry.
He was my young teenage Japanese guide with a searing lesson in forgiveness and universal care at the same time.
Nagasaki, Japan is pictured four years after an atomic bomb was detonated over the city on August 9, 1945. (CNS/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel files, USA TODAY NETWORK via Reuters)
From where I stand, it is clear that the violence starts at the top for us. Under the umbrella of ‘defense’, we have come to exalt the kind of violence that undermines all layers of our entire society. It corrupts our children, it unties our relationships, it blinds us to the poison of our national heart as we grow less and less happy every day.
We have been called by strong bishops over the years, all of whom have understood this infection in the body politic. Bishops Thomas Gumbleton, Raymond Hunthausen, Leroy Matthiesen and 75 other bishops who led the American episcopate in the first peace ministry in the United States precede a bishop who wakes us up again to what the Beatitudes really are.
The difference is that Wester stands alone and stands in what has become the center of America’s “nuclear soul” in Santa Fe, calling us once again to examine our American consciences. As Pope Francis said at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial on November 24, 2019, “The use of atomic energy for warfare is immoral, just as the possession of nuclear weapons is immoral. …How can we talk about peace even as we build terrifying new weapons of war?”
Who said no one can do anything important alone? We now have a bishop who, by rising alone, can – we can hope – awaken this country to the place of conscience in the life of the Beatitudes.
Provided, of course, that we are willing to stay there – alone – as well.